BREAKING: 'No discrimination' against Bristol gay row Christian counsellor Gary McFarlane court rules
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled a Christian relationship counsellor from Bristol did not suffer religious discrimination at work after being sacked for objecting to working with gay couples.
Gary McFarlane, a counsellor from Hanham, was sacked by the Avon branch of relationship charity Relate in March 2008 after he indicated during a training course might have a conscientious objection to providing sex therapy to a same-sex couple, if the situation ever arose.
As a result he was dismissed for gross misconduct for discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.
Mr McFarlane was one of four Christians who claimed they lost their jobs as a result of discrimination against their beliefs.
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He took his case to the ECHR alongside Shirley Chaplin, an Exeter nurse who was banned from working on hospital wards for wearing a cross around her neck; Nadia Eweida, a British Airways employee who was prevented from wearing a cross; and Lillian Ladele, who was disciplined by Islington Council for refusing to conduct civil partnership ceremonies for homosexual couples.
Mr McFarlane was directly supported by Christian Concern charity, along with Ms Chaplin.
Judges at the Strasbourg court considered whether the British Government is failing to protect the rights of Christians.
The only Christian to have suffered discrimination, the ECHR ruled today, was Nadia Eweida. She "suffered discrimination at work over religious beliefs", the Court ruled.
In the other three cases the employer was "pursuing a policy of non-discrimination against service users".
The British government fought the cases, arguing because crosses are not a “requirement” of the Christian faith, employers can forbid the wearing of such symbols and fire workers who insist on doing so.
Mr McFarlane's first appeal in January 2009 found he had been wrongfully dismissed, but was not the victim of religious discrimination or unfair dismissal.
The counsellor, who has been backed by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, lost his case to prove religious discrimination at the Employment Appeal Tribunal later that year.
Ruth Sutherland, chief executive of Relate, said today: “We welcome the ECHR's ruling. We believe that it is further endorsement that Relate acted in an appropriate manner and fully in compliance with the law in the case regarding Gary McFarlane.
"The ruling supports our view that Relate acted properly and that it was Mr McFarlane who was in breach of his agreed terms and conditions of employment.
"For Relate, this case has always been about protecting the right that every Relate client has to impartial, unbiased and empathetic counselling and sex therapy in line with our charitable aims.
"Relate respects both the religious beliefs and diversity of its staff as well as its clients, regardless of age, gender, race, disability, religious beliefs, relationship status or sexual orientation.
"Over a million people every year access information, support and counselling from Relate but it's clear many more would benefit from Relate services.”
Issuing a statement, British Humanist Association chief executive Andrew Copson said: "The European Court applied exactly the same tests and measures that we have been advocating for years.
"They asked the question 'Will this manifestation of a person’s religion interfere with the rights of others?' In three out of the four cases they found it would and rightly dismissed them.
"These cases have been repeatedly lost in court after court and have wasted an enormous amount of time just as they have generated a huge amount of unnecessarily divisive feeling amongst the public.
"The victim narrative that lies behind them, whipped up by the political Christian lobby groups that organise them and the socially conservative media that report them, has no basis in reality.
"The widespread misreporting of these cases under the guise of 'Christian persecution' when they are anything but has undermined the chance of the public to get a really clear understanding of what the issues engaged by these cases really are.
"What they describe as discrimination and marginalisation of Christians is in fact the proper upholding of human rights and equalities law and principles – principles which protect all people against unfair treatment – and we are pleased that the court has recognised this.
"All reasonable people will agree that there is scope in a secular democracy for reasonable accommodation of religious beliefs when that accommodation does not affect the rights and freedoms of others.
"But if believers try to invoke their beliefs as a defence for treating other people badly – denying them a service because they are gay or claiming a right to preach at them in a professional context – the law is right to prevent them.
"It’s not persecution of Christians; it’s the maintenance of a civilised society for all."
Watch Gary McFarlane talk about his case:
More to follow.